On Nov. 6, 2012, California voters will decide the fate of Proposition 37, the Genetically Engineered Foods Labeling Initiative. If the initiative passes, genetically engineered foods sold in California will have to be conspicuously labeled with the words "Genetically Engineered" or, in the case of processed foods, with the words "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering." It would be the first law in the United States to require any sort of labeling of genetically modified foods.

Who is behind the initiative?

Proponents of the initiative call Proposition 37 "The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act." The initiative was drafted by attorney James Wheaton, president and legal director of the Environmental Law Foundation, a group whose mission includes legal enforcement of a similar "right-to-know" law: California's Proposition 65. Funding to support the initiative is provided in large part by various osteopathic and organic food groups, including Mercola Health Resources, Organic Consumers Fund, and Nature's Path Foods.

What would Prop 37 do?

There are three main parts of the proposed law:

(1) the requirement to label genetically engineered foods as such;

(2) a prohibition from labeling foods that have genetically engineered ingredients with such terms as "natural" or "naturally grown;" and

(3) an enforcement provision that allows any person, regardless of whether the person has suffered an injury or monetary loss, to sue for injunctive relief and potentially monetary relief under the law.

Required labeling of genetically engineered foods

Proposition 37 defines "genetically engineered" to mean "any food that is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through the application" of various in vitro nucleic acid techniques or by the fusion of cells in a manner that "overcome{s} natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers." Foods that may fall under this broad definition include many common crops, as well as processed foods made with corn, soybeans, tomatoes, sugar beets, and canola or rapeseed oil. Some estimates suggest that 70 to 80 percent of all processed foods sold in the United States are made with genetically engineered ingredients.

Any processed food that is or may be produced with genetically engineered ingredients must have a clear and conspicuous label that identifies the food as "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering" or "May Be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering." Similarly, if raw produce is sold in California and it qualifies as genetically engineered under the proposed law, it must be labeled with the words "Genetically Engineered."

The initiative has several notable exemptions from the labeling requirement. One exemption seems to exclude genetically engineered food if it has been grown or produced "without the knowing and intentional use" of genetically engineered seed or ingredients. This exemption may create a need for sworn statements from suppliers guaranteeing that ingredients are not knowingly or intentionally genetically engineered. Other exemptions to the labeling requirement include:

• meat products made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered foods or drugs;

• alcoholic beverages subject to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act;

• processed foods made with genetically engineered processing aids or enzymes;

• foods labeled "organic" pursuant to the federal Organic Food Products Act of 1990; • foods served at restaurants for immediate human consumption.